2012 was the deadliest year yet for journalists. The Arab spring countries are failing to live up to the promise of freedom of expression. A number of democracies that should know better are tightening press restrictions.
These are just some of the findings in the annual press freedom index published by the Paris-based NGO Reporters Without Borders.
This matters even if you're not a journalist. Anything that restricts freedom of the press is going to limit what you know about your government, and about who wields power in your country. And that diminishes your role as a citizen.
The big picture
It's not all bad news. The past year saw some dramatic improvements in press freedom, alongside some shameful declines. Overall, however, there's way too much red and black on this map, and far too little white:
Hall of Shame
2012 was a deadly year for journalists and netizens in countries where telling the truth can get you killed. In the highest toll since Reporters Without Borders has kept track, 90 journalists, six media assistants and 47 netizens and citizen journalists were killed worldwide last year. Syria and Somalia led the list, with 18 deaths each, followed by Pakistan with 10 and Mexico with six.
Mali – long seen as an island of stability in west Africa – tumbled 74 places to 99th because of a military coup, followed by a takeover of the north of the country by armed Islamists who have subjected the press to censorship and violence. Tanzania sank 36 places to 70th largely due to two journalist deaths. Oman dropped 24 places to 141 because of a crackdown that saw some 50 netizens and bloggers prosecuted over the course of the year.
Change has been slow to come for Arab spring countries, too. Tunisia and Egypt still have poor ratings, despite the role bloggers and citizen journalists played in their revolutions. Libya has shown some progress in press freedom, gaining 23 places to 131st – but it still faces challenges.
These folks should know better
Japan took a big fall of 31 places to 53rd, largely because of tight government restrictions on information about the Fukushima nuclear accident. Greece (84th, -14) dropped dramatically as journalists have been subjected to threats and violence from political extremists and police. Hungary continues to make journalists' work harder with repressive media laws. And the US –home of the much-vaunted first amendment guarantee of freedom of expression – comes in at 32nd. (Actually, that's a 15-place improvement from last year, when the US's rating took a big hit because of widespread police harassment and arrests of journalists covering the Occupy protests across the country.)
But here's some good news
Malawi showed the biggest improvement this year, leaping 71 places to 75, largely because of the thaw following the death of President Bingu wa Mutharika, who was once described in a leaked diplomatic cable as "autocratic and intolerant of criticism". Ivory Coast made progress too, gaining 63 places to 96, as the armed conflict between supporters of former President Laurent Gbagbo and now President Alassane Ouattara was resolved. Burma – which has occupied a place in the bottom 15 for more than a decade – continued to gain as the government loosens press restrictions, resting in a still less-than-stellar 151st place.
These results show that freedom of the press and expression is fragile and easily eroded; it can't be taken for granted. Of course, it can be quickly restored or improved as well, if citizens push for their leaders to do the right thing.
All the more reason for aware citizens everywhere to pay attention and do what they can to protect and grow that freedom.
How does your country rate?Check it out! Then tell us how you'd rate freedom of expression in your country.
Sources: Reporters Without Borders, Avaaz, Gulf News, Human Rights Watch, Reuters, BBC